Though I've found that many people think otherwise, wool is not a cruelty free product and there is no such thing in the UK as a flock of sheep kept solely for their wool. Generally, farmers get a poor return for wool and there are now only two fleece scouring plants left in the UK. The main outlets for British wool are carpets, clothing and 'everything, down to insulation' (BBC Radio 4 Farming Today 02/06/2014) - with knitting yarn not even mentioned.
There are a tiny number of tiny farms which keep sheep mainly for the wool, but looking into this I have found that their claim is merely that their special wool is 'shorn from live sheep who are free to return to the fields' - which is actually no different from the norm. Most fleeces are shorn from live sheep, whilst a lesser amount is reclaimed from slaughterhouses ('pulled wool'). I have read that 27% of wool comes from slaughtered sheep, but I've not been able to verify this. The main product of sheep farming is lambs for 'the table', and the only adult sheep you will see in the fields are kept for breeding.
In December 2014 Animal Aid published a report The Uncounted Dead, which exposes the cruelty and neglect whereby an estimated 43 million farm animals die of disease, neglect, fire, flood, adverse weather and traffic accidents. In the UK, farmers need only to report deaths from 'notifiable' diseases, so actual casualty figures are not known. But it is clear that many farms are overcrowded, lacking shelter, prone to flooding, poorly built and wired, and that road transport is a hazardous business.
The sheep population
Like many types of animal farming in the UK, sheep farming is essentially unsustainable - in other words, to keep it going in its present form it needs a large input of government and European subsidies (see Environment page). All the practices described here are subsidised by public money.
During the 20th century there was an astonishing 500% increase in the number of sheep livestock in the UK (UK Data Archive, 2007-2008. Study Number 6363: Sustainability of Hill Farming. Retrieved October 31, 2012 – courtesy of Wikipedia). Back in the 15th and 16th centuries wool was England's gold mine, and until just a year or two ago the UK had the highest sheep population in Europe. Even though the UK is a tiny country proportionally, we have been up there in the world's top ten sheep producers. There are half as many sheep in the UK as there are in Australia though we have only three per cent of Australia's land mass.
The UK sheep population has fluctuated in recent years, with a downward trend. The RSCPCA uses the figure of the Wool Marketing Board and says “In 2012 there were around 32 million sheep and lambs in the UK, with the sheep breeding flock containing 15 million ewes.” (http://www.rspca.org.uk/allaboutanimals/farm/sheep/farming). Previously populations over 40 millions had been registered.
The downward trend is explained by the fact that the EU farm subsidies per head of livestock were withdrawn in 2004. They were replaced by the 'single farm payment', which relates to the acreage of the farm rather than the number of animals kept. The motive for this significant change was to lessen the devastating effects of overgrazing during the previous decades, and it has certainly had the effect of slightly diminishing the sheep population. But aside from subsidies the essential product of sheep farming is its annual cash crop.
Lambs are the farmers' annual cash crop.
The main income from sheep farming today is the sale of the lambs. Once a sheep has reached its peak production, or in the case of lambs for the Easter lamb market, it will be slaughtered. In any one year, roughly half of the sheep and lamb population will be slaughtered and replaced.
"…. there is little reason to adjust the previous forecasts for the 2013 lamb crop. As such it remains at approximately 15.8 million head; this figure being some 1.36 million (8%) lower than the level estimated for the 2012 lamb crop.....”
I read the phrase 'cash crop' in the biography of Hannah Hauxwell, the famous 'Daughter of the Dales', when it was first published in the 1970s. Despite its leaning towards nostalgia and 'heritage', the book is not sentimental about animals, and it does make clear that sheep farmers in the hills would not survive without their most lucrative 'crop', which is lambs for slaughter. So for obvious reasons please do not feel sentimental when you see lambs in the fields.
“Most lambs/sheep are slaughtered at 10 weeks to 6 months, though some may be 14 months old.”
Even producers who keep small flocks for the speciality wool market, have to breed lambs each year. I once read in a knitting magazine of a woman in the Highlands who aimed at some point in the future to be able to keep her small flock without selling lambs, but this would need to be heavily subsidised by other income. Please contact me with details if you know of such a flock and I will mention it here if the owner agrees. Keeping sheep just for wool would be virtually impossible on a commercial scale, though there may be a very few individuals who do it for a hobby and leave the sheep to live out their natural lives. In fact, in the four months since launching this site, one person has contacted me to say he and his wife keep a small number of pet sheep and use the wool. Such wool does not make it to our local wool shops and even if we could afford to buy it there wouldn't be enough to go round.
Since writing the above, I've come across Izzy Lane, a company which apparently produces cruelty-free wool, though not yarn. It's based in North Yorkshire and keeps rescued sheep for wool and not for meat. It sells very high-end fashion clothing. So 'the exception proves the rule' - see the last sentence in the paragraph above!
You can also buy wool in the form of fleece from the Farm Animal Sanctuary in Worcestershire which you have to spin yourself or send for spinning, but which is certainly cruelty free and is affordable. All this bears out the fact that 'cruelty free wool' is not really available, at least in any shop .
The short and hazardous life of sheep
Sheep are farmed in hills (e.g. Wales, Peak District, North Yorkshire...), in uplands, or in the lowlands (e.g. East Anglia, East Yorkshire, Devon....) and this involves different breeds of sheep, often very localised. Also in many areas sheep are bred in the hills and fattened for slaughter in more hospitable lower lying fields. Hence “sheep can be frequently transported throughout their lives and are often sold via livestock markets.” (RSPCA – see http://www.rspca.org.uk/allaboutanimals/farm/sheep/farming)
250 sheep can legally be transported in a single lorry and we know that sheep may be transported several times during their lives. The Animal Aid Report mentioned above details just a representative list of accidents over recent years, of which these are examples:
24 March 2014, 60 sheep killed when a trailer overturned on a remote road in Cumbria... 20 May 2014, 4 sheep killed when a trailer overturned in Shropshire … 11 September 2012, 43 sheep were shot or euthanised when they were found to be unfit for travel on arrival at the port of Ramsgate and another two drowned when the floor of their holding area collapsed … 9 August 2011, a goods vehicle carrying 250 sheep and 17 cows overturned in North Yorkshire where 125 sheep and 2 cows were killed … 24 August 2010, 5 cows and 150 sheep were killed when a lorry overturned on the B6372 … These are examples of accidents which reach local or national press and it can be assumed that many more accidental deaths never reach the media. Countless animals are also killed when, because of careless farmers, they stray onto roads.
We are used to seeing sheep out in the fields in all weathers and all seasons, without shelter, and we think that must be 'natural'. Well of course it's not, for all animals need somewhere to shelter in adverse conditions, whether in burrows or tree cover (how many wild animals or pets do you see standing about in the rain?) Despite excellent weather forecasting, farmed sheep are subjected to torrential rain, waterlogging, blizzards and drought, and are forced to produce lambs before the warm weather has started, which they would not do if left to their own devices.
The report also details several incidents within the past three years where large numbers of sheep have died in floods, from Dumfreas and Galloway (“dozens”) to Spurn Point in East Yorkshire (30) to Clwyd where 230 sheep perished in a flood near Wrexham.
Sheep are adapted to dry rocky ground, and so those kept in low lying areas are likely to suffer from foot diseases. In today's large flocks, at least 10% of sheep suffer chronic lameness, parasite infestation and viral and bacterial infections of the feet. I often walk in sheep farming parts of the Peak District where a limping sheep is a common sight. Scald and footrot, both bacterial infections, are the main causes of lameness. It's the inevitable consequence of being kept in England's green and pleasant (therefore wet) land, often in fields smattered with their own excrement – such land is sometimes called 'sheep sick' ground, and it encourages disease. The average size of flocks kept in hill farming is around 600 sheep. http://www.fbspartnership.co.uk/documents/2009_10/Hill_Farming_Report_2009_10.pdf Herding animals in the wild move around and are rarely subject to such diseases.
"LAMENESS remains one of the most important welfare issues affecting the sheep industry. Recent estimates suggest that over 80 per cent of flocks contain lame sheep, with a prevalence in some flocks of over 9 per cent for footrot and over 15 per cent for scald” (Journal of the British Veterinary Association In Practice, no. 26, 2004 http://inpractice.bmj.com/content/26/2/58.abstract)
Foot and mouth disease
Another hazard for sheep is foot-and-mouth disease (which can also affect pigs and cattle). It causes fever, lameness and general weakness and is highly contagious but rarely fatal. It cannot be cured but usually runs its course within two or three weeks. However, in the UK infected animals are “culled” in order to prevent others from being infected, as this would cause economic problems for the farmers (in other words, an outbreak would cause the animals to lose body weight, i.e. meat, as well as deterring consumers who would be put off by the news stories). You may remember the 2001 outbreak when 3 million sheep were slaughtered in the UK in order to avoid the disease spreading. It was presented in the media as tragedy for the sheep, but it's obvious that, in any one year, many times this number go to slaughter in the normal course. Over £1 billion was paid to farmers in compensation. https://www.nao.org.uk/press-releases/the-2001-outbreak-of-foot-and-mouth-disease-2/
Here is another media headline, this time showing the threat of hypothermia and starvation to sheep kept outside in the UK with no shelter:
“Farm leaders are in emergency talks amid fears that thousands of sheep have perished in snow drifts.
“It comes as companies responsible for collecting fallen stock are being asked to offer bulk discounts for the disposal of dead animals.”
(Farmers Weekly March 2013, see http://www.fwi.co.uk/articles/26/03/2013/138342/emergency-talks-as-sheep-death-toll-climbs.htm )
And the toll of sheer neglect is huge, with cases that come to court representing only the tip of the iceberg. The example detailed in the Animal Aid Report from the countryside that I know best (South Pennines) is of a case of 50 dead sheep being found alongside live animals on a Derbyshire farm.
Lambs and lambing
Sheep have two teats and in natural conditions they would have just one lamb. However, many years of selective breeding and intensive feeding have resulted in sheep which often produce two or even three lambs, which the farmer then tries to keep alive using various bizarre methods - essentially tricking another sheep whose own lamb has died into suckling a lamb that's not her own, whatever her weakened condition (for she must have lost her own lamb for a reason.) There are many hazards of nursing and here I shall mention just one.
“Mastitis in ewes is a cause of significant financial loss to the industry and severely jeopodizes the welfare of affected sheep and their lambs.”
Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the teat canal, most often during the first few weeks of lactation, and it's very painful. Faecal infection, as with many other farm animal diseases, is usually the cause.
It's not surprising, given the harsh conditions in which sheep are raised, that lambing is a hazardous time for sheep and lambs. The care of the shepherd for the sheep and lambs is legendary and is still commonly cited, not least in churches ('The Lord is my Shepherd'....) , though of course animals in more favourable conditions, with ample clean grazing and shelter, and without intense breeding, would not necessarily need intensive care. And the mortality statistics show that not all farmers are able to give that care. Lambs are a cash crop after all, worthy of care only as far as they promise good market value.
I am sure that all farmers if challenged with neglecting their animals would strongly deny the accusation and assure us of the devoted care they give to them. Probably most of the farmers are being truthful, though to those of us who choose not to use their products, the word “care” seems a misnomer when ultimately the worst will happen to the animals. But aside from such issues, there is always 'human nature' to contend with and wherever people are engaged in any business there are always those who are neither honest nor compassionate. Again and again undercover investigations find the most appalling abuse of farm animals and this has included both the RSPCA Freedom Foods and the Red Tractor assurance scheme (which is after all an organisation made up basically from farmers and the food industry) see for instance http://www.hillside.org.uk/HillsideInvestigationFootage.htm.
In natural conditions, lambing would take place in early summer. It's the shortness of daylight hours in midwinter that triggers oestrus, so that after a five month pregnancy the lambs will be born at a reasonable time. However, lambing on farms takes place as soon as the farmer judges that he can 'get away with it' – in other words, when he thinks that early births in February and March will not cause lambing deaths to outweigh profitability. When the time is judged to be right, the farmer will either organise artificial insemination, or he will let a ram into the flock. On a typical farm ewes are rounded up in October and given a better diet prior to 'flushing' by the ram. Lambing will then take place in early Spring, sometimes even whilst snow is on the ground.
The photo shows a common scene in the Derbyshire Peak District - an open field on a cold stormy day in early spring. The nursing sheep is lame.
Castration and tail docking
In the photo above, tail docking is also illustrated. The mature sheep you see in the fields are either females or castrated males. In most herds they will all have had their potentially long tails removed by 'docking' during the first weeks of life. Sometimes you can see the remains of lambs' body parts in the fields.
Elastration is the most common method of castration and tail docking in the UK. For castration, a thick rubber ring is placed around the neck of the scrotum and this causes it to wither within four to six weeks. Lambs who are destined for slaughter before reaching sexual maturity are not usually castrated, however. The procedure is usually done in the first week of life. Scottish Government recommendations state:
“Account should be taken not only of the pain and distress caused by castration but also the stress imposed by gathering and handling and the potential risk of infection. For very young lambs gathered in large groups there is real risk of mismothering which may lead ultimately to starvation and death.”
These are recommendations only and the law itself merely states that it is illegal to castrate a lamb over the age of three months without anaesthetic.
Tail docking is routinely done to lambs, also with a rubber ring, and is carried out in order to reduce the build-up of faeces around the anus, which would encourage flystrike, a serious parasitic disease.
The distress of tail docking and castration, both carried out at the same time, may prevent the lambs from suckling, which is life threatening in the early days.
A report by the former Farm Animal Welfare Council in 2008 found that “in the absence of effective pain relief, lambs experience considerable pain in the period following application of the ring.” They also found that the ring causes considerable pain and distress to the lamb for up to a month after the initial procedure.
(The FAWC has since been replaced by the government's Farm Animal Welfare Committee)
Despite these measures, flystrike still affects many flocks in the UK. It's a very serious parasitic disease, with the blowfly larvae (maggots) infesting the anal area and eating the tissue.
It seems that 2005 was a particularly bad year:
“Blowfly strike is a major welfare concern and an important cause of ill thrift and death in affected animals. Last year, the first cases were reported throughout the UK at the beginning of May, and the incidence remained high during the summer. Problems were compounded by wet weather, which made chemical preventive management difficult.”
Farmers Weekly 20 June 2005 11.2
This is not carried out in the UK but in Australia where Merino sheep are extensively farmed. Flystrike is a particular hazard for Merino sheep because they have been bred to have many folds of flesh to produce their very wooly fleeces. Mulesing is the practice of actually removing skin from the area around the anus, usually without pain relief or antiseptics, in order to lessen the risk of flystrike. Mulesing is actually a surgical procedure though it is carried out by unqualified hands. The sheep is tied down on its back whilst flesh is carved out from its backside with clippers or large scissors. No anaesthetic is used and the bleeding wound is left open.
Animal rights groups, noteably PETA, have campaigned against mulesing, achieving a ban on Merino wool by, for instance, John Lewis in 2009 and New Look in 2012. New Zealand has adopted a voluntary ban on the mulesing but Australia seems to have reneged on a promise to outlaw it. Thousands of tonnes of wool are imported into the UK from Australia and it is still the main source of Merino wool sold in the UK.
Sheep dipping to reduce mite infestation of the skin was compulsory until 1989, since when infestations of sheep scab have been rampant in the UK. Sheep scab (a mite infestation of the skin) causes great distress to the animal and can be fatal. Both the disease and the prophylaxis are severe.
To combat sheep scab, regulations say that sheep must be immersed for one whole minute in the toxic mix, with their heads dunked twice during that period. The dip is highly toxic to plants and animals so there are problems both with the disposing of the liquids and with contamination of the land and waterways from the sheep themselves after dipping.
National Animal Disease Information Service http://www.nadis.org.uk/bulletins/control-of-sheep-scab.aspx
See the Environment page for more on sheep dip.
The story goes that the women who first made those beautiful Shetland shawls (so fine they could be drawn through a wedding ring!) used to pull the wool from the sheep, and in this way produce an extremely fine yarn. That would be before Shetland wool went global - these days there's not much time for pulling wool. Selective breeding has produced sheep with fleeces which cannot be shed naturally over the summer months, and this leaves them at risk of heat exhaustion. Conversely, in our increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather, the sheep are also at risk from cold weather after shearing. Shearing typically takes place once a year, at the beginning of the summer when the sheep have just been through the stresses of pregnancy and lactation. There is no doubt that rough handling is necessary. We can only imagine the feelings of the sheep, who evolved to suppress signs of pain or fear so as not to attract predators. This we interpret as indifference or compliance. Unbelievably, there are people who want sheep shearing to become an Olympic sport.
Bear in mind that most wool used in knitting yarn is not from UK sheep. Most of it is from countries which farm sheep on an industrial scale - please watch this short video if you have any doubts about the shearing process:
Since writing the above, I've come across Easy Care Sheep http://www.easycaresheep.com/. "Easy Care is a revolutionary breed of sheep which requires minimal shepherding and veterinary care, sheds its wool in the summer, does not need shearing and yet offers excellent meat yields and lambing ratios. The breed is now well established in Britain and abroad and is proving extremely popular and successful with breeders in today's farming environment".
That certainly shows the farmers' priorities. According to a farmer featured on Radio 4 Farming Today, there are now around half a million of these sheep in the UK. This farmer was very clear that, though the UK wool market seems to be on the up, British wool will never be able to compete with the superior wool that comes from merino sheep in other countries.
Sheep have a life span similar to that of dogs and can live up to 17 years, but farmed sheep are usually slaughtered when they have reached their peak market value, which means before they reach six years old. The majority of sheep slaughtered each year are lambs (under one year old).
Animals must by law be stunned before slaughter in the UK except those under religious slaughter. Those killed by religious slaughter may often be killed in the same slaughterhouses but without the initial stunning.
During 2014, the charity Animal Aid carried out undercover filming in 10 slaughterhouses and in 9 out of the 10 they filmed criminal welfare breeches. Only the last filming in December hit the mainstream media in January 2015, and perhaps only then, regretably, because it produces halal meat. You may not want to click on the link below because it shows horrific and sadistic cruelty which potentially could occur in any slaughterhouse.
In UK slaughterhouses, where 'humane slaughter' is practiced, sheep have to wait immobilised in a queue where they can hear and smell what is ahead. Then they enter the stunning pen, where electric prongs are applied on either side of their head, and a current passed through the brain, rendering the animal temporarily unconscious if all goes 'well'. They then have their throats cut and are immediately hoisted up and suspended by a back leg to be passed along the overhead line where bleeding to death will take place during the next few minutes (again, if all goes 'well'). The process is the same for cattle and is a legal requirement in the UK and most western countries because of the need to avoid cross contamination from blood.
Time and time again, undercover investigations show how the process can go horribly wrong, given that it is carried out away from public view and mostly away from official scrutiny. Sometimes the smaller slaughterhouses are the worst, as with this investigation by the Hillside Animal Sanctuary, published in a mainstream newspaper in February 2015:
Animal rights organisations have been campaigning for years to make CCTV cameras compulsory in UK slaughterhouses. The campaign has been strenuously fought and fought against - which in itself speaks volumes of the industry. Only in 2015 are there now glimmerings of possible future success - which, when it happens, will be notified here!
Live export of sheep and cattle is still going on the the UK (2015) and of course when the animals reach their destination, they will be in a country which does not have the 'humane' procedures of the UK.
In addition to buying local produce when possible, many people search out organic products, including wool. In the UK, only produce certified by the Soil Association can be called 'organic'. The Soil Association is proud of its animal welfare standards:
The Soil Association promises that in organic farming there is
- Lots of outdoor space and fresh air
- Encouragement of normal animal behaviour
- Minimised stress in transport and slaughter
The first two criteria here are not different from non-organic sheep farms, and as for the third, organic and non-organic go to the same slaughterhouses. So from the sheep's point of view there's not much difference between organic and non-organic farms.
People who have studied sheep closely know that they are very intelligent and individualistic animals, more so than dogs sometimes – not to mention that they are also able to suffer fear and pain, like all other mammals. It's just that we humans can't usually read their signals.
Sheep, like other herd animals, evolved to hide signs of pain and distress so as not to attract predators – how tragic that this now seems to work to their disadvantage.
On the Environment
page is a 16th century lament for the displacement of traditional mixed farming by sheep farming. Here is an extract from a poem from mid 20th century Wales:The Welsh Hill Country
Too far for you to see
The fluke and foot-rot and the fat maggot
Gnawing the skin from the small bones,
The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,
Arranged romantically in the usual manner
On a bleak background of bald stone.
Too far for you to see ...........R.S Thomas, 1913-2000
Welsh poet and Anglican parish priest.